NEW YORK — If there's one thing that musical theater performers fear most it might be silence — their own. Imagine opening your mouth to sing and nothing comes out.
Peter Gallagher knows that sinking feeling all too well. He has battled a severe sinus infection to be able to star opposite Kristin Chenoweth when Broadway's "On the Twentieth Century" opens Sunday.
"I thought I had a cold. For about 10 days, I was singing through it. It turned out it wasn't a cold," said Gallagher, who is on antibiotics and is never far from a bottle of water. "I had no voice."
Previews of the madcap musical were rocked in late February when the actor had to let his understudy go on instead. A March 4 return was too soon and he had to drop out again. Gallagher hit the stage again last weekend and — knock wood — has been fine since.
In an interview with his co-star this week, Gallagher, who estimates he has logged a total of 2,400 performances on Broadway, couldn't hide his frustration with a virus that disrupted so many shows.
"I've always prided myself on being a bit of a workhorse. I've probably missed more shows in the last two weeks than I have in the past 38 years," he said. "I felt particularly bad abandoning Kristin during this period of time."
Chenoweth, the Emmy- and Tony Award-winning star of "Wicked," can commiserate. She has performed over the years with vertigo, broken toes and a dislocated shoulder, but she missed shows only because of a throat infection.
"When it happens, I believe it's just a higher being going, 'And now you're going to stop,'" she said. "What's so frustrating in this business is we put all this time and energy and effort into something and sickness is what gets you?"
Gallagher, whose films include "sex, lies, and videotape" and "American Beauty," had been careful about his health before the infection. He stopped going out at night and skipped coffee.
"I've been living like a monk. I've been Mr. Purell — protecting every possibility," he said, ruefully. "But you know what? Ultimately its part of the thrill of the live experience."
The musical he's in is adapted from a 1934 film with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Cy Coleman. It features the songs "Our Private World" and "Life Is Like a Train."
Both actors have been humbled by the score. "I've never had to sing this kind of music," said Gallagher. His co-star agrees: "Honestly, it's a challenge. I was trained operatically and it's hard."
In the show, Gallagher plays a shameless — and penniless — producer who hightails it out of Chicago after his stage version of "Joan of Arc" flops. He needs a hit and hopes one of his leading ladies who went on to fame to Hollywood can help. They meet aboard the Twentieth Century Limited train, as it travels to New York City.
Chenoweth has been a Gallagher fan since she caught him in "Guys and Dolls" in 1992 and tried to persuade him to do her 2013 movie "Family Weekend," which wasn't a smash. ("Yes, it's a huge hit — on planes," Chenoweth jokes. "You have to fly to see it.")
"He was so kind," she said. "He probably is too sweet to say he wasn't thrilled about the script, but he called me on the phone — not an email — and he said, 'I'm not going to be able to do it. I really am sorry, kid. I really wanted to do this with you. We'll find something else sometime.' And here we are."
For his part, Gallagher had seen Chenoweth in "Wicked" and calls her "a musical genius." The two share the same voice teacher and perhaps fate put them together now.
"I had it in my mind that 'If I do another musical, I want it to be with her.' I just had a feeling that that would be a really good thing," he said. "And it's true. I love being onstage with her."
So having Gallagher back from sickness has put Chenoweth in a grateful mood: "It was like he was never gone. I mean, he was gone and I missed him terribly but it was like having a hand inside of a glove — it fit."
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits